Embracing failure

The other day I saw a wonderful clip of J.K. Rowling on Facebook. She was talking about how she struggled with failure for a long time, but in the end concluded that it stripped away the inessential and gave her the freedom to write Harry Potter. Something she said stuck with me: “It is impossible to live without failing at something unless you live so cautiously that you might not have lived at all, in which case you fail by default.” I suspect every writer in the world knows just what she’s talking about. Listening to her speak reminded me of my first novel, which was a fairly epic failure. I’m not referring here to The Fiction Class, which was published by Penguin in 2008. I like to think of that as a success. But I’m thinking of the first novel I wrote, titled PITCH. I started writing it in the mid-1990s, having spent many years writing and publishing short stories. I figured I knew what I was doing in that area, and so how difficult would it be to switch over. The novel is about a woman who trained to be a concert pianist, but suffered from stage-fright, and so was happy to walk away from that career when she became a wife and mother. She thought she was happy, anyway, until one day her old lover showed up on her doorstep. He was a great pianist, but he was fascinated by the music of the Russian composer Alexander Scriabin, and he was convinced that he’d become possessed by an evil spirit after having performed one of Scriabin’s sonatas that was said to call up the devil. (In fact, some pianists have died after performing it.) He needed her help, but that involved her betraying her husband and coming to terms with choices she had made. I spent seven years on that novel. The first chapter was fabulous and won a best novel prize at a big conference. Publishers were interested. One young editor read it and wanted it, but when she gave it to her senior editor, she said, “I just don’t know what this about.” I revised it. I resubmit. I learned how to play the piano. I was awful. My mother used to make fun of me. I revised it. I got wonderful rejections, but everyone said it was just a little odd. Or else they’d say if I’d written it ten years earlier, it would have been published in a minute. I changed the point of view. I changed the ending. I changed the middle, and finally I changed the beginning, which was the one part I knew really worked. Finally, after seven years of this, I put it aside. I then spent four years working on a novel titled COURTING DISASTER, about a woman who gets engaged 17 times, and then finally falls in love. That didn’t sell either, though I think it had a better narrative arc and best of all, there was a character in it, Chuck Jones, who I loved, and who became an important character in THE FICTION CLASS. I wish both those novels had sold, but they didn’t, and yet I learned so much from them. I consider them my very long M.F.A. degrees. Or perhaps Ph.Ds. I never would have chosen to work for so long on something that didn’t work, but I don’t regret what I did. I gave it my heart. The other day, I was thinking about a scene I might like to write in a new MAGGIE DOVE. There’s a piano teacher in the series, Arthur Cavanaugh, who doesn’t have a big role, but he could. In fact, it’s possible an old lover of his will show up, and will be concerned that she’s possessed by Scriabin’s ghost. I don’t know. Just a thought.

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